CHAPTER 14. Little Dorrit’s Party
Arthur Clennam rose hastily, and saw her standing at the door. This history must sometimes see with Little Dorrit’s eyes, and shall begin that course by seeing him.
Little Dorrit looked into a dim room, which seemed a spacious one to her, and grandly furnished. Courtly ideas of Covent Garden, as a place with famous coffee-houses, where gentlemen wearing gold-laced coats and swords had quarrelled and fought duels; costly ideas of Covent Garden, as a place where there were flowers in winter at guineas a-piece, pine-apples at guineas a pound, and peas at guineas a pint; picturesque ideas of Covent Garden, as a place where there was a mighty theatre, showing wonderful and beautiful sights to richly-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and which was for ever far beyond the reach of poor Fanny or poor uncle; desolate ideas of Covent Garden, as having all those arches in it, where the miserable children in rags among whom she had just now passed, like young rats, slunk and hid, fed on offal, huddled together for warmth, and were hunted about (look to the rats young and old, all ye Barnacles, for before God they are eating away our foundations, and will bring the roofs on our heads!); teeming ideas of Covent Garden, as a place of past and present mystery, romance, abundance, want, beauty, ugliness, fair country gardens, and foul street gutters; all confused together,–made the room dimmer than it was in Little Dorrit’s eyes, as they timidly saw it from the door.
At first in the chair before the gone-out fire, and then turned round wondering to see her, was the gentleman whom she sought. The brown, grave gentleman, who smiled so pleasantly, who was so frank and considerate in his manner, and yet in whose earnestness there was something that reminded her of his mother, with the great difference that she was earnest in asperity and he in gentleness. Now he regarded her with that attentive and inquiring look before which Little Dorrit’s eyes had always fallen, and before which they fell still.
‘My poor child! Here at midnight?’
‘I said Little Dorrit, sir, on purpose to prepare you. I knew you must be very much surprised.’
‘Are you alone?’
‘No sir, I have got Maggy with me.’
Considering her entrance sufficiently prepared for by this mention of her name, Maggy appeared from the landing outside, on the broad grin. She instantly suppressed that manifestation, however, and became fixedly solemn.
‘And I have no fire,’ said Clennam. ‘And you are–’ He was going to say so lightly clad, but stopped himself in what would have been a reference to her poverty, saying instead, ‘And it is so cold.’
Putting the chair from which he had risen nearer to the grate, he made her sit down in it; and hurriedly bringing wood and coal, heaped them together and got a blaze.
‘Your foot is like marble, my child;’ he had happened to touch it, while stooping on one knee at his work of kindling the fire; ‘put it nearer the warmth.’ Little Dorrit thanked him hastily. It was quite warm, it was very warm! It smote upon his heart to feel that she hid her thin, worn shoe.
Little Dorrit was not ashamed of her poor shoes. He knew her story, and it was not that. Little Dorrit had a misgiving that he might blame her father, if he saw them; that he might think, ‘why did he dine to-day, and leave this little creature to the mercy of the cold stones!’ She had no belief that it would have been a just reflection; she simply knew, by experience, that such delusions did sometimes present themselves to people. It was a part of her father’s misfortunes that they did.
‘Before I say anything else,’ Little Dorrit began, sitting before the pale fire, and raising her eyes again to the face which in its harmonious look of interest, and pity, and protection, she felt to be a mystery far above her in degree, and almost removed beyond her guessing at; ‘may I tell you something, sir?’
‘Yes, my child.’
A slight shade of distress fell upon her, at his so often calling her a child. She was surprised that he should see it, or think of such a slight thing; but he said directly:
‘I wanted a tender word, and could think of no other. As you just now gave yourself the name they give you at my mother’s, and as that is the name by which I always think of you, let me call you Little Dorrit.’
‘Thank you, sir, I should like it better than any name.’
‘Little mother,’ Maggy (who had been falling asleep) put in, as a correction.
‘It’s all the same, Maggy,’ returned Little Dorrit, ‘all the same.’
‘Is it all the same, mother?’
‘Just the same.’
Maggy laughed, and immediately snored. In Little Dorrit’s eyes and ears, the uncouth figure and the uncouth sound were as pleasant as could be. There was a glow of pride in her big child, overspreading her face, when it again met the eyes of the grave brown gentleman. She wondered what he was thinking of, as he looked at Maggy and her. She thought what a good father he would be. How, with some such look, he would counsel and cherish his daughter.
‘What I was going to tell you, sir,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘is, that my brother is at large.’
Arthur was rejoiced to hear it, and hoped he would do well.
‘And what I was going to tell you, sir,’ said Little Dorrit, trembling in all her little figure and in her voice, ‘is, that I am not to know whose generosity released him–am never to ask, and am never to be told, and am never to thank that gentleman with all my grateful heart!’
He would probably need no thanks, Clennam said. Very likely he would be thankful himself (and with reason), that he had had the means and chance of doing a little service to her, who well deserved a great one.
‘And what I was going to say, sir, is,’ said Little Dorrit, trembling more and more, ‘that if I knew him, and I might, I would tell him that he can never, never know how I feel his goodness, and how my good father would feel it. And what I was going to say, sir, is, that if I knew him, and I might–but I don’t know him and I must not–I know that!–I would tell him that I shall never any more lie down to sleep without having prayed to Heaven to bless him and reward him. And if I knew him, and I might, I would go down on my knees to him, and take his hand and kiss it and ask him not to draw it away, but to leave it–O to leave it for a moment–and let my thankful tears fall on it; for I have no other thanks to give him!’